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V/A - Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels

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Artist: V/A

Album: Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Jul. 23, 2008

Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels details the story of Jesse J. Jones, the saxophonist/producer/label boss from Atlanta who missed his glory shot in Los Angeles, returning home to head up Tragar and Note. Both labels released a string of excellent soul singles that flew under the radar for any number of reasons, from Jones’s early industrial blacklisting through to underwhelming promotional nous. If you’ve been following the Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series, this’ll sound familiar: over the past few years, the label has been documenting soul imprints and jukebox singles that never made it, an ongoing anthology of best intentions and smartest-laid plans gone astray.

Of course, it’d all amount to nothing if the compilations weren’t so uniformly classy, unlocking archives and dusting off acetates from Miami (Deep City), or Columbus, Ohio (Prix). Amounting to alternate histories, there’s something almost hagiographical about these collections, unveiling the stories of saint-like characters whose ears and limbs translated teenage visions, songs of devotion and much more into singles that, for whatever reason, never quite made the leap into national consciousness. Indeed, its geographic, scene-/label-based focus reminds me of that other great archival project of recent times, Chuck Warner’s Messthetics series of DIY iconoclasts. And if there are some bum notes, or some wayward performances in amongst the gold, so much the better: this music may be many things, but it ain’t airbrushed. And there’s always commitment in these grooves: on “You Got A Spell on me”, Bill Wright’s vocal reaches a guttural scream early in the piece and stays at that level of energy throughout: it’s always on, always at its peak.

Much like Betty Wright’s and Helene Smith’s appearances on Numero’s Deep City collections, it’s the ladies that shine on Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels. Franciene Thomas’s “Too Beautiful to be Good” is just staggering, its architecture of emotion framed with gorgeous strings that retain just enough sting in their tail, their slightly acrid taste the punctum that elevates the song into the stratosphere. Her “I’ll Be There” is similarly stunning; the several-second breakdowns that punctuate the song are breathless, leaving a gaping void in the track. This reminds me of Green Gartside’s comments on his conversion to soul and R&B, about the ‘controlled excess’ of this music: ‘all its voids required me to fill them, and sometimes that was very violent, a theatrical excess.’

The other great voice here belongs to Eula Cooper, whose “Heavenly Father” starts out as psychedelia in miniature before celestial strings send her voice soaring. Songs like this, or “Try”, attest to the power in soul arrangements, how central great strings and brass are to the best soul records. Her “Let Your Love Grow Higher” is just exhilarating, a higher-level hymn that burns with febrile energy. It’s rightly called out in the liners as ‘absolutely the finest moment’ on Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels. And all through the songs here, from Alice Swoboda, Chuck Wilder, and countless others, you can hear what’s always, for me, been the defining tenor of the greatest soul records: a fantastic celebratory power that’s ghosted by loss, a loss that occasionally rises uncomfortably to the surface of the performance, as in Wilder’s devastating “The Clown”.

I’m often a bit cynical about these sorts of compilations - certain labels or artists have good reason for staying underappreciated or undiscovered. But Numero have been batting way above average for a while, and this is another sweet shot from the archives, handled with care. So keep it coming.

By Jon Dale

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